Interview with Matt Cusson

Matt Cusson: Award-Winning
Singer and Songwriter

Matt Cusson is an award-winning singer/songwriter who continues to wow audiences all over the world. In addition to recent tours with Christina Aguilera, India.Arie, and Dave Koz, Matt has worked with many of the world’s biggest artists: playing piano, singing, writing, producing, and arranging with Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, Anderson Paak, Dua Lipa, The Roots, CeeLo Green, Megan Hilty, Meshell Ndegeocello, Leslie Odom Jr., Boyz II Men, Billy Porter, and mentor Brian McKnight, and many others. A Berklee College of Music alum, Matt’s 2009 debut album received rave reviews and won several songwriting and performance awards including a Billboard Songwriting Award and the John Lennon Songwriting Contest’s most prestigious award, the Maxell Song of The Year, for his jazzy “One of Those Nights”. Matt also won the 2017 John Lennon Songwriting Best R&B Song Award for his soulful ballad “Leaving L.A.” Matt’s 2012 Christmas EP, It’s Christmas Time, is one of the most played each holiday season on Sirius XM.
(Courtesy of Matt Cusson’s website)

TSM: Matt, it’s really wonderful to have you in TSM, and appreciate you interviewing for the magazine.

MC: It’s my pleasure! I really appreciate you doing what you do, and thank you so much for reaching out to me!

TSM: You began singing at two and started performing in public at age eleven. Wow, well you were definitely born to sing! Who were some artists you liked singing along to as a child? What was one of your favourite songs to sing? Tell us about the first time you performed in front of an audience.

MC: I always enjoyed all types of music, if the song is good then it doesn’t matter what style. As a kid I listened to a lot of Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, Nat King Cole, Take 6, Miles Davis, Djavan, the list goes on and on and on. As far as which song was a favourite, that’s a tough one, I remember getting Inner Visions by Stevie and I would run that album all the way through and sing along. I sang a lot of Take 6 too when I was young, I always tried to pick apart their arrangements than with an old 4 track recorder and recreate what they were doing. There was a lot of Brian McKnight in my early childhood too, for a while when I was like eight, or nine, I wanted to sound just like him. The first time I performed in front of an audience I was eleven years old at this spot called Cherry’s in Lenox, MA. It was an open mic night and I sang Tevin Campbell’s “Round and Round.” At that point, it was the thrill of my life! There were maybe fifty or so people there, I was shaking like crazy and you could definitely hear it in my voice. But I got applause, haha. So it wasn’t a disaster. 

TSM: At what age did you start writing songs? When did you start playing the piano and guitar? And finally, what was the first song you ever wrote?

MC: Since I can remember I would always form melodies and words in my head. Was something I always did, especially if I heard a siren go by or any kind of sound nature would give me, I’d start drumming a beat to it and singing over it, and just sing about what I saw or someone who was around me. I think the first song I’ve ever written was around nine or ten, and I think it was called “Little Kid”. Terrible song and hilarious lyrics, but at the time I thought it was a hit, haha. I started playing piano when I was about five or six, I would imitate what I heard on the radio or wherever there was music, from then after learning chord progressions and melodies I would create my own little songs. The first song I ever learned and played on the piano was Stevie’s “Ribbon in the Sky”. But to this day I can’t read a note of music. Guitar? I think I started playing sometime in high school, and now I write a ton on guitar. 

TSM: What’s your process for writing lyrics? And where do you get the inspiration for your songs?

MC: Lyrics are so important in songs. The older I get the more emphasis I put on writing good lyrics. I don’t know if there’s a specific process in writing them. They come from all different areas in all different ways. I try to form some kind of concept first, and then think of the million different ways I can lyrically dance around that concept. I change lyrics constantly up until the very last minute while I’m recording the vocals to a song. And if you ever saw a page or two of my lyrics on the computer, they’re an absolute mess. I’m trying to get more organized but if I think of ten different ways to say one line, I’m writing them all down and weaving them all together because I never know what I might like tomorrow that I didn’t love today. 

TSM: In 2000, you were discovered by one of your biggest musical inspirations, Brian McKnight. Wow, the odds of this happening are rare, so you must have been on cloud nine! Can you recall the day that he discovered you? And what was it like collaborating with him?

MC: That was a storybook day in my life without question. I remember the day like it was yesterday. I was at Berklee College of Music in Boston and we had a mutual friend who told me he was coming to hang out at the school. We all were hanging out in one of the big practice rooms at the school and after a while, my friend told me I should sing. Nervous as can be, I sat at the piano and played and sang an original. By the second verse Brian was on the phone making a few calls, at that point I was thinking either he thought I sucked or just didn’t care. Little did I know he was calling his manager and then his wife to let them hear me. From there we all just messed around on the piano for a while and he asked me what my plans were. That night I dropped out of school and he flew me to his house in California the next day. Wrote a few songs, had some really unforgettable experiences. I’ve been touring with him since about 2007 or so which consisted of some opening up, playing keys and singing background. I’ve learned so much from him over the years, it’s been a dream come true travelling the world with him!

TSM: Besides collaborating with Brian McKnight, you’ve had opportunities to perform with other accomplished artists such as: James Taylor, Norah Jones, Jessica Simpson, Nick Lachey, The Beach Boys, Babyface and Christina Aguilera. That is an impressive roster! What has been one of your most memorable experiences?

MC: It’s hard to pick just one because each one of those holds a special place in my heart for me. Playing with Stevie was insane. I barely remember the details because I was over the moon excited but sick to my stomach nervous. We played two songs for a TV show, “Do I Do” and “My Cherie Amour” and Stevie walked into rehearsal and said “follow me,” and I just lost my mind and concentrated so hard on every note he was playing so I could be right there with him. It was a LOT, 5 keyboards and I was responsible for playing some of the chords but a lot of the horns, strings and extra bells and whistles, and because I love the guy so much and he’s one of the biggest reasons I was even there playing for him, I wanted to hit every sounds as perfect as I could. Stressful but completely mind-blowing experience. 

TSM: I know you’ve collaborated with Christina Aguilera several times, and toured with her last year. What is something unique about Christina Aguilera that people might now know about her? 

MC: That was one of the more amazing moments of my career. I had to learn 35 songs in the span of two days to sing background vocals for her. But even bigger than that, I had to learn “Say Something,” the duet she sang with A Great Big World. It was quite the moment. During this massive stage experience with all the lights and screens and smoke and everything, all the lights suddenly go out and a single spotlight would hit the stage, that was mine. I slowly walked out and started “say something I’m giving up on you,” then she came out and sang with me. We ended the song holding hands at center stage. Just crazy for me to think about. I think the only thing I could say about her is if you haven’t seen her live, she’s as good if not better than she is on her albums. Just a total professional and unreal vocalist. She brought it every, single, night. 

TSM: Do you have a memorable venue that you particularly enjoyed performing at the most and why?

MC: I always say the best venue I’ve ever played in whatever venue I’m at that very moment. I know that’s a cop-out answer, but when I’m in the moment, it’s true! That being said, over the last few years I’ve definitely played at some bucket list venues. Sydney Opera House, Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, Greek Theater, just to name a few. There’s still nothing like the smaller, more intimate venues too though, really just acting like we’re all hanging out in my living room. 

TSM: You’ve released two albums, a self-titled debut album and your latest album is Only Human. Tell us a bit about Only Human and the inspiration behind the title.

MC: That album was kinda something I really wanted to do. It was more of a singer/songwriter, musical arrangement thing for me. For a bit, I left the jazz and soul thing aside just to create this one. It’s a SUPER personal album. Some of those songs cut deep, and talk about the really dark moments for me. I’m heading back to the RnB/Jazz thing from here, but that album means a lot to me. It had a lot of different styles on it, 14 songs when people were begging me to do two EP’s instead, and it talks about some of the ups and downs I’ve been through. That’s why “Only Human” was kind of a perfect title for it. Hey, I’m Only Human, I’m going to overdo this with the songs, I’m going to spend a ton of money on this and barely make it back, I’m going to mash 14 different style tunes on one album, a marketing nightmare, but I’m Only Human, and that’s what this album is all about. 

TSM: Tell us about your latest single, “Don’t Let Go.”

MC: “Don’t Let Go” started as an internet challenge from the guy that wrote it and originally performed it, PJ Morton. I’m a HUGE fan of his, and my good friend Javier Colon challenged me. Now I’ve always been way too insecure to do these things, never loved the video of myself. But Javier is one of my closest friends, and I had a day off so I figured why not, and let me really go in on it. So I did this little arrangement and recorded a video of it, and PJ himself actually posted it on his page which was so amazing of him, and that ended up doing really well for me. It will definitely be on my next album too!

TSM: I really love the song “The Moon and More” that you wrote, produced and performed with Javier Colon for NASA’s LRO project. Tell us a bit about this project and the inspiration behind your involvement with it.

MC: Thanks so much! Javier and I were approached by NASA to do this project. They wanted an uplifting, inspirational tune to be kind of an educational song for kids and it was for the LRO Project. Also to let kids that don’t know much about NASA and the LRO know that they can dream, and make those dreams happen! We had a blast recording that song and video. (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter). 

TSM: How do you think you have grown as a singer/songwriter since you started out?
 
MC: I learn so much with every song I write, co-write, produce, arrange, whatever. Listening to everything helps so much. Every style, every artist. I’m obsessed with listening to everything, learning new piano runs and vocal riffs. I read poetry every day because I’m fascinated by how different people will weave words together. Just trying to always write a better song than I wrote yesterday. But I’ve definitely gotten better at the instruments, production, and arranging. All those elements help me to do what I’m doing today. So the short answer is, I think I’m a better lyricist than I used to be, and understand more and more about production to make these tunes come together.

TSM: What’s next for you?

MC: Got a third album or EP coming this summer. I have so many tunes it’s hard to figure out how I want to put them out and I WILL be thinking more about the marketing and all that when it comes to future releases, unlike Only Human. But it’s all music, and I have a ton of it. I’ve produced probably 30 or so songs for other artists over the last year so all those will be coming out if they haven’t already. Just continuing to grow, learn more about the music world, make more and more music and getting it out there! 

TSM: If you had the power to do something in the world today, what would it be and why?

MC: As a musician, I think we really strive to touch as many people as we can. All I can really ask for is that what I do can maybe bring a smile to someone’s face once in a while, or bring up a great memory, or help make a bad day a little better. Maybe just one person at a time, to give them a few minutes away from something that is troubling them or maybe just distracting them from a hectic day. Whether it be the biggest of inspiration I sparked or just a small sigh of goodness for someone. Of course, beyond music, there is so much more to do. I try to get involved with as much as I can that makes the world a better place. 

TSM: What is one of your favourite quotes (or lines) that inspires you?

MC: Seems like each day of my life has a different quote. But something I heard Quincy Jones say once is “let the song write itself.” For so long I would try to write what I thought others wanted to hear or to go down a particular path that had restrictions. Now I just let the song flow and take it places that elevates the song for me and hopefully the listener. There are definitely times where I’m hired to write a particular song, and that’s a great way of doing it too, but I tend to make more business decisions instead of emotional ones when I write those tunes. When I’m writing for myself though, I just let it happen, and experiment and just go for the best version of whatever I’m writing. 

TSM: Anything else you’d like to share? And where can readers find out more about you and your music?

MC: A lot of new music coming out this year! Super excited about it. You can stream it or buy it anywhere you listen to music. And best places to find me are: 
Website – mattcusson.com
Instagram – @mattcusson
Facebook – facebook.com/mattcusson
Twitter – @mattcusson

TSM: Thanks again for taking time out of your busy schedule to do an interview with TSM. Best of luck with your music in the future.

MC: Much love to you and thanks again for having me! So happy to be a part of it. 

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